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Theatre review: Mass Observation at Almeida Theatre

17:48 16 July 2012

Lucinka Eisler as Mass Observer in Mass Observation at the Almeida. Photo by Edmund Collier

Lucinka Eisler as Mass Observer in Mass Observation at the Almeida. Photo by Edmund Collier

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Slightly disjointed, but a promising work-in-progress piece full of fascinating ideas

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»Ensemble group Inspector Sands have unearthed a forgotten slice of history in Mass Observation, a work-in-progress play at the Almeida Festival. However, the plethora of ideas leads to a slightly disjointed experience at present.

The titular social movement was created by a group of artists and scientists in 1937, to tell the story of the everyday British person, which in practice meant recording the minutiae of their lives, in written notes and type.

Act one sees Marsha (Amanda Lawrence), a young woman, falling in love with one of the founders, Tom Harisson and joining his movement, set against the backdrop of a playful and funny pastiche of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ style of propaganda.

Ben Lewis’s Harisson is a jovial, post-Victorian egotist, who’s championing of the everyman is amusingly patronising, if a little clichéd. The way he involved the audience, however, went down very well.

The use of projected type as a means of showing the character’s thoughts chimes with the ideals of the social movement, and is a novel way to tell the story.

After Marsha fails to seduce Harisson, the Mass Observation team move to wartime London and we begin to wonder whose story this is – Marsha’s, Harisson’s, the movement itself, the British public? – and where it’s heading.

The second act is set seventy-five years later, over the course of Jubilee weekend in 2012. Marsha, now in a care home, observes Stephen Harper’s painfully hung-over PR man trying to collect his grandfather to go to a street party.

There are entertaining moments (Guilia Innocenti’s portrayal of an elderly lady is quite uncanny – she’s one to watch), we are left somewhat stranded, trying to make a connection to the events of the first act. This left me with the distracting impression the two acts had been written independently.

A clearer narrative and a firmer grasp of the fascinating ideas here would improve this promising piece no end.

* Mass Observation was at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday, July 14, as part of the Almeida Festival, which runs until July 28. Visit www.almeida.co.uk/festival2012 for more or call 020 7359 4404 for box office.

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